Gin has long been the mature, clever sister to party-girl vodka. Where the latter dissolves into its surroundings without individuality, gin counters with an unapologetic punch of personality. “Gin is effortlessly cool,” says Eleanor Maxfield, editor of “The Ultimate Cocktail Book” ($18, Hamlyn/Octopus). “It has a brutal side, and, while oozing with sophistication, it also has a curious air: that strange floral aftertaste, an unparalleled herbal tinge.”
Its headstrong flavoring has made evangelists of tipplers including James Bond and Julia Child. And it’s a simple-yet-complex pleasure: a distilled neutral grain spirit flavored with botanicals (mainly juniper), aka, vodka snazzed up.
Yet gin’s most distinctive ingredient, juniper, stirs up some trouble. “People get afraid of gin,” says James Horn, beverage director and co-owner of Graffiato (707 6th St. NW; 202-289-3600), where his gin and tonic features lime-quinine ice cubes. “They associate it with their grandparents’ martinis, or they think juniper smells like cleaning solution.”
Despite its bad rep, juniper was once widely revered as a palate pleaser. It reportedly got its start in 17th-century Holland, where apothecaries sold it as a stomach medicine. Juniper berries made the potion more drinkable.
“Gin is the closest thing to a legalized, mind-altering drug available,” jokes Umbi Singh, owner of New Heights (2317 Calvert St. NW; 202-234-4110), where the first-floor bar is dubbed the Gin Joint for its 42 types of the spirit and G&T tasting flights. Bar manager Nicole Hassoun considers herself a gin pharmacist. “A lot of people have the attitude that they hate gin; re-introducing people to it is like giving a prescription.”
Gin wasn’t always reviled. In 1689, the year England imposed a ban against imported French brandy, a royal decree encouraged any British man, woman or child to distill gin.
But like many coeds to follow, the Brits suffered a gin party gone bad. Its hangover? Alcoholism spilled across the countryside, forcing sales restrictions and price hikes such as the Gin Act of 1736.
In 1830, a new style of distillation revived the spirit’s rep, a bright sip known as London Dry. Popular with Royal Navy Officers, gin jumped from the porch stoop to the parlor — and sailed to America with English sailors.
During Prohibition, gin emerged as the booze of choice for home “distillers” — aka anyone with a bathtub and some grain. But its harshness left some Americans with a funny taste for the spirit. By the 1980s, Time magazine pronounced the gin martini an “amusing antique.”
Indeed, many of the most inventive gin cocktails date to Prohibition, including the Aviation (gin, maraschino liqueur, crème de violette) and the Corpse Reviver No. 2 (gin, Lillet, Cointreau, absinthe). With gin generally low-grade, creative mixing masked the bite. “Gin is one of the spirits of choice for most old-school drinks,” says Owen Thompson, beverage director at food history-themed America Eats Tavern (405 8th St. NW; 202-393-0812), where he slings gin highballs such as Clover Clubs, with raspberry syrup and frothy egg whites.
So it’s only natural that as trends focus on all things retro, gin has gotten its groove back. “For the longest time, vodka dominated what Americans drank, but gin is making a revival,” says Josh Berner, bar manager at Cleveland Park’s Ripple (3417 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-244-7995). “Well-made cocktails have become popular, and those of us who make them like gin.”
Though classic martinis still top cocktail lists, gin stars in less formal drinks, too — most famously, rickeys, and gin and tonics. The key is finding the right style of gin. For drinkers who only think of Lysol when they see that bottle of Bombay Sapphire, a new generation of American gin distillers produce lighter, citrusy varieties like Bluecoat, an American dry out of Philadelphia with a crisp-yet-mellow finish, and West Virginia’s Smooth Ambler, infused with baking spices.
The bottom line: Gin isn’t just for “Mad Men” three-martini lunches. “I love working with gin,” says Jason Strich, head mixologist at Rasika (633 D St. NW; 202-637-1222). “All those botanicals give it a refreshing profile — and it’s pretty much unlimited what you can do with it.”
If You Just Have to Drink A G&T…
Like its namesake spirit, the gin and tonic was conceived as medicine: Tonic’s quinine — a bitter substance derived from the red bark of the cinchona tree — proved a malaria fighter for British colonists in the tropics. That wedge of lime? It helps prevent scurvy. Now imbibers turn to G&Ts to remedy summer heat and humidity. Luckily, it’s a basic cocktail. “The gin and tonic is paradoxical,” says Adam Bernbach, head mixologist at Estadio (520 14th St. NW; 202-319-1404). “It’s extremely simple — just gin and tonic water — but also incredibly complex, as both gin and tonic are full of botanicals.” Savvy bartenders start with their favorite gin and top it with a high-quality tonic, from artisanal brands such as Fever Tree, Q and Fentiman’s. Schweppes and Seagram’s are OK, too. New Heights’ Nicole Hassoun serves house-made tonics such as lime — orange blossom and hibiscus. Even ice, the G&T’s sleeper ingredient, deserves attention. Graffiato’s James Horn ups the ante with quinine-lime ice cubes. That sounds pretty chill to us.
Burnsides (From “The Ultimate Cocktail Book”)
» 8-10 ice cubes
» 2 measures dry vermouth
» 2 drops Angostura bitters
» 2 measures gin
» 1 teaspoon cherry brandy
» 1 measure sweet vermouth
» strips of lemon rind, to decorate
Put 4-5 ice cubes into a cocktail shaker. Dash the bitters over the ice, add the cherry brandy, sweet and dry vermouths, and gin. Shake lightly, then strain into a glass over the remaining ice cubes. Decorate with strips of lemon rind.
Written by Express contributor Katie Knorovsky
Photos by Abby Greenawalt